Inq. of the Week: D&D and Magic Items?

Last week Dave asked about which of the big summer conventions you are planning on going to just before he set out for Origins 2010 himself (which he’ll no doubt be writing about this week). The largest group was 46% of you that aren’t planning on attending any of the big gaming conventions. The most popular convention was GenCon with 26% of you planning on going, followed by the Other response with 13% and just above Origins that 12% of you attended just last week. Dragon*Con came in at 9%, San Diego Comic Con had 5% and PAX Prime was at the bottom with 4%. We don’t take these as full proof numbers, just a decent look at which cons are more popular and get more attendance amongst you guys.

Today I’d like to touch on a topic that is very prominent on my mind lately, the topic of how magic items are handled in Dungeons & Dragons and specifically how they’re designed to be used in 4th Edition. I would imagine there is some good discussion that can be had on this topic, but between Dave and I we pretty well agree on the matter so I’m bringing it up here to hopefully open up to a larger range of opinions and see what we get. The DMG2 introduced some solid rules for skipping magic items and keeping the math intact by adding flat bonuses per tier/level so that the PCs can keep up with the monsters without the need for magical weapons and armor.

One of the really fantastic elements of D&D is that you can have one group’s campaign where magic items abound and every character is draped in more than enough of them to handle various situations, or you can have a game where magic items have been unheard of for centuries and the discovery of only one of them can change the course of the entire campaign. Of course there are always the artifacts or the healing potions which run the range from incredibly rare and powerful to common and used nearly every day but are all still magical items, but it’s not very difficult to look at any campaign or setting and figure out roughly how common magic items are in that world. With all of this in mind, I’m asking:

[poll id=”165″]

Please feel free to share any details about your characters or campaign worlds in the comments. It doesn’t matter if you have a Conan-like character who doesn’t need a magical sword to slice people’s heads off or an epic paladin wearing radiant forged plate armor and a holy avenger, we want to hear about it all!


  1. You bring up a subject I’m kind of passionate about. Here is my alternative on Magic Items in my ongoing project: Classic Fantasy.


  2. TheKeyofE says:

    In the first 4E campaign I ran, magic items were normal. I felt that as written magic items were way too common, and it was a pain to choose and place all the items that the characters were supposed to find. In the first 4E campaign I played as a PC in, the DM didn’t give us enough items (or gave us crappy items) and I felt gimped compared to the monsters. It was a losing proposition either way.

    The next campaign I run, I will be using a modification of the house rule detailed in this message board thread:

    Basically the way it works is Weapon Expertise and Implement Expertise are completely removed. Characters instead get a natural +6 to attacks and defenses over the course of 30 levels. Magic weapons, implements, armor and neck items now give a +1 for every 10 levels instead of +1 for every five levels. This means characters need to upgrade less often and will thus find fewer magic items. I was going to use this house rule because I think it makes magic items seem more special.

  3. The options don’t really cover what I like, which is:

    A small number of Major magic items with names and histories and unique abilities. 2-3 per character tops.

    A lot of pedestrian utility magic items that are simply No Big Deal and can be picked up from the right vendor in town.

    I don’t like the factory anonymous feel of magic items in 4e as written. That’s fine for the little stuff though.

  4. As long as the items are interesting and no one feels left out on the gathering of fun toys.

    And since Tourq is doing it:, my thoughts on magic items:

  5. @Sean Holland Thanks! This is exactly what I mean. 😀

  6. I said incredibly rare but one of the things that burned me out on D&D in general (specifically 3.5e) was the fact that I felt that I didn’t really have an option except to give PCs magic items at the rate suggested by the books. The system is was structured around PCs having certain armour classes, certain damage rates etc. At least 3.5 got rid of the damage reduction based on the number of pluses a weapon had. So when you say:

    “One of the really fantastic elements of D&D is that you can have one group’s campaign where magic items abound and every character is draped in more than enough of them to handle various situations, or you can have a game where magic items have been unheard of for centuries and the discovery of only one of them can change the course of the entire campaign.”

    I can only disagree.

  7. Tourq: Glad other people are as interested in the topic as I am (I had a feeling they would be). 🙂

    TheKeyofE: That’s close to what I think would be preferable with 4E, so we’ll see what I end up doing with it.

    Sian: Yea, sorry about that, I knew I wouldn’t be able to completely cover the range of options that people would want but tried to do my best while still keeping it relatively simple. I agree on the 4E items, that’s the same feeling I get from them.

    Sean Holland: I guess that’s just good timing on both our parts then!

    Nick: I can certainly agree with you that the systems are built around a particular level of magic items, but especially with 4E that’s not a hard thing to work around as a DM as illustrated in the link KeyofE provided and discussed. In 3rd Edition it might have been harder, but we always played with strongly house-ruled systems (in 2E and 3E and even in 3.5) so I still stick by what I said. 🙂

  8. Imagine that! uncommon is the most popular choice XD

    Well as a player the magic items is a powerful force to make me want to slay the big baddie for a chance to loot that incredibly awesome item, i find it also helps to keep me compelled to the argument of the fight, yes we are trying to prevent the hypothetical catastrophic event that would end all life as we know it and anyone will… but after initiative is rolled and a big berserk orc is charging to me with the B.F. Sword of Chaotic Underresurrection that summons unicorns that trows LAZORS off their eyes…. im thinking “yeah.. im getting that…”

    As a DM i try to maintain this feeling providing enough Magic items with enough flavor for them to be both cool and somewhat uncommon, in other to keep them valuable and that players get a sense of satisfaction when they finally get one

  9. I’m with Sian on this one — I want magic items to feel … magical, for lack of a better word. They should be special, dangerous, and have a history. I’m amazed that the game, as designed, does not allow for a Lord of the Rings type of magical item interaction.

    Overall, I think this is the major failing of fourth edition, though — D&D is easily the largest roleplaying game out there, but seems designed in a manner which limits options for those running games.

    The lack of the potentially unbalancing magical items is symptomatic of this.

  10. Digimax says:

    Tourq, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. That’s right up my alley. All the characters keep the heroicly epic feel, without any math.

  11. Steve: I’m not sure I understand your closing statement in the slightest. Did you miss in the above comments where several options for how to handle magic items (or the lack of them) in 4E were posted? I’d love to hear more about how the design of 4E limits a DM’s options, but at the moment I don’t see how the argument holds much water. Plus if you want a potentially unbalanced magic item, it’s not hard at all to give one to your players.

  12. @Bartoneus: In fact I distinctly recall a Dragon article detailing why and how you should give unbalanced magic items to your players! 😀 And also why they can’t put them in the books.

  13. Batoneus: I understand all of your options, but D&D is written with “Common” in mind.

    You need to homebrew to use a low-magic campaign — which is simple enough: provide the players with extra level-based bonuses, or monsters with level-based penalties.

    Alternatively, if you want something along the lines of something you would read in a fantasy novel, you usually end up putting a rather powerful magical item — something that the books would never cover — in the hands of a player before they are of a sufficient level to handle it. Maybe they’d be like Frodo, and never powerful enough to handle it.

    These items do not fit into the official 4E mantra of balance, and WotC won’t publish them. I also find it much more difficult to adjust encounters on the basis of such magical items — I’m guessing also due to “balance” issues. Once something becomes unbalanced in 4E, it’s much harder to keep it upright.

    I’m not sure if I’m referencing the same thing adamjford refers to, but you can read the hows and whys here:

    Personally, I think that such magic items add a lot to the game for everybody involved. I like it when they have stories and histories, and powers that the PCs cannot always predict or comprehend.

    There are other design elements I dislike in fourth edition, but I find myself touchy on magical items. So many of the books I read as a child that led to D&D — from Lord of the Rings and King Arthur on down — start with a magical item beyond comprehension. That these now lie outside the core game and require house rules simply astounds me.

  14. I truly miss consumables. I wish we could get more of those.

    Seriously… if first level adventurers come across a scroll of “Wall Of Fire” dang that would be fun. I suppose that Daily Powers are meant to put a dent in that need, but when your players needed some way of getting out of trouble when they are in way over their heads, consumables was the cure.

    If you think about it, there was many a session in AD&D when you’d haul out something and save everyone’s bacon. Or the DM was going.. dang.. that was a smart use for that. “Potion of Undead Control… OK, the Vampire does what he’s told.”

    But seriously, I’d just like a potion of Plant Control.

  15. I want magic items to be like in Lord of the Rings: the PCs have them, and they are generally special and important. In the world, they are incredibly rare.

    Unfortunately, my players like more toys, so we split the difference. 🙂

  16. In the 3.5 campaign I dm’d, the players started at level 6, but with reduced character wealth, implying their adventures leading up to this moment had been saving peasents and fighting Dire Bears and other non-treasure-hording-monsters, instead of Dragons and crazy wizards with fully stocked castles. This added exitement to the many home-brewed items I cooked up for loot and shopping, moreso than if the characters had started with a full set of +2 optimised whatever. Sadly with an Archer style ranger, a dual-weilding dervish, and some elvish rapier prestige class I don’t remember offhand…they still kept their +1 weapons they had feats and class features for instead of taking +3 Greatclubs that knocked prone on a crit or whatnot 😛

    4th edition, I kind of enjoy the level of customization you get (“hmm should I fill this slot with +saves for myself, +saves for a teammate, fire resist, invisibility 1/day, +9 vs ogres…”), although it does tend toward an odd Christmas Morning feel at shops or treasure hordes. There’s still the option for what I did in 3.5 though; if they’ve been using the same +1 Frostcheese Longsword for the past 13 levels, and then they find a +4 Thundering Warhammer… that can be fun as well, “living off the land.”

  17. One of the things that drove me crazy about 3.5 is that, particularly for the more martial classes, magic items were the only way to compete at high levels. 3.5 and prior editions were pretty shoddy for game balance at high levels, anyway, but a 20th-level fighter with a longsword and plate mail was pretty underpowered by comparison to a well-equipped 15th-level fighter. That’s a little crazy.

    4e has essentially made magic items unnecessary, particularly if you go for the notion of inherent bonuses: the cool macguffin is the *character*, not the thing he’s holding. I really appreciate that feel.

    However, there’s a tradeoff: when the character’s powers are the “magic”, actual magic items feel more like little afterthought accessories, rather than powerful artifacts in their own right. The magic item economy of 4e is well-suited to a world filled with artificers, where you can go and get something made that gives you just that little boost you need to get an extra edge… not a place where mighty weapons filled with ancient magic are found by great heroes in their darkest hour. Magic items in 4e are never gonna have names like “Glamdring” or even “Biter”.

    So I ultimately think I fall somewhere in the middle. It’s nice to be able to have that “ring of a handy extra ability”, but I miss the feeling of having a powerful magic item as well. I’ve experimented a bit with adding multiple standard enchantments to items, e.g., a Subtle, Dynamic Glaive. That works OK, and starts to give magic items a real feeling that they’re unique, with a story all their own. I do miss the customizability of magic items in 3.5. Of course, you can also just adapt the artifact rules to magic items as well… I haven’t tried this, but it could be nifty.

    In the stories, the hero never trades in his sword for a newer, sexier model–“hmm, Glamdring is pretty decent, but Hrunting over there makes my dooty twinkle!”–so some system in which magic items become more useful by level would also be very welcome.

  18. Seth White says:

    Aren’t the powerful magic item rules accomplished with artifacts? Sure the Ring of Power was a powerful item, but there was plenty of other low-level magical loot, from mithral shirts to glowing swords, elven bread and cloaks, and that’s just one character. It looked to me that the other characters had fancy swords and bows and staves that ran the gambit from +1 to +5, named and otherwise. Core 4e seem to have the 4 or so magic items rule in mind since when creating a new character you get about that many magical items and the enchant disenchant rituals exist just so you can power up your key items. I think 4e plays rather well with a limited named-item campaign, with a few powerful artifacts thrown in here and there.


  1. […] last Inquisition was about the prevalence of magic items in your campaign, and what amount you prefer in the D&D games you play. 60% of you pegged the “sweet […]